A cyclist rides around a car parked in the Hennepin Avenue bicycle lane between 11th and 12th streets. When approached for an interview, the car’s driver pulled away. Photo by Dylan Thomas

Blocked in the bike lane

Updated: November 16, 2018 – 9:10 am

Citations rise, but illegally parked vehicles remain a common annoyance for cyclists

The edge of the roadway is a space in demand for pickups, drop-offs and the short-term parking of delivery vehicles of every type, from boxy white Amazon vans to Sysco’s refrigerated semis.

It’s also a space where drivers frequently come into conflict with bicyclists. On-street bikeways comprise more than half of Minneapolis’ lauded 244-mile cycling network, mostly in the form of dedicated bike lanes striped next to a curb or street parking — places where it is illegal for motor vehicles to park or even stop, with few exceptions.

But stop they do, even when those bicycle lanes are separated from motor vehicle traffic by a row of plastic bollards, as on Blaisdell Avenue South, or a wide cement curb, as on 11th Avenue east of U.S. Bank Stadium. Evidence often turns up on social media, and one Twitter user posted a photo of a car parked on the wrong side of the 11th Avenue curb just days after it was installed this fall.

Cyclist Jay Gabler said he doesn’t get as annoyed with delivery vehicles, which just as often block motor vehicle traffic when no loading zone is available, as “with the cars and vans that block lanes with impunity while they idle for whatever reason, whereas they would rarely just hang out in a car traffic lane.”

“Let them block parking or other lanes,” said Willy Lee, a cyclist who lives in South Minneapolis and works on the West Bank. “I’m in grave danger when I try to go around and traffic is coming at 40 mph.”

Steve Mosing, a city traffic operations engineer, said it’s a problem Minneapolis has tried to address through a combination of roadway design, signage and driver education, with mixed results.

“It’s kind of like shoveling water,” he said. “It’s just a tough nut to crack.”

Citations increasing

The fine for parking in a bicycle lane is $25, but few Minneapolis drivers ever paid that fine before 2016.

Charges for parking or stopping in a bicycle lane were filed just seven times in all of 2015. By the following year, the total jumped to 376. In 2017, it was 586 cases. Charges for stopping or parking in a bicycle lane had been filed 500 times in 2018 as of Aug. 31.

The Minneapolis Traffic Control Unit is a division of Regulatory Services. The city did not provide an official from the department for an interview, instead responding with an emailed statement.

A Sysco semi-truck parked in the bicycle lane on 12th Street in downtown Minneapolis. Photo by Dylan Thomas
A Sysco semi-truck parked in the bicycle lane on 12th Street in downtown Minneapolis. Photo by Dylan Thomas

“Traffic Control has made efforts to increase enforcement so bicycle lanes are kept clear, including adding some technology so that 311 complaints get more quickly to agents in the field when there are problems reported. Delivery vehicles found blocking bike lanes are ticketed,” the statement read.

In response to additional questions, another email from the department stated that Traffic Control was ticketing vehicles stopped or parked in bicycle lanes in 2015 and earlier, “but they were cited for a more general illegal stopping infraction that didn’t specify bike lanes,” which may explain why court records showed so few citations in 2015.

Minneapolis Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Matthew Dyrdahl said blocked bicycle lanes may not be the top concern he hears from cyclists, but the complaints do reach him, particularly via social media.

“And, obviously, I ride my bike a lot and I see bike lanes blocked,” he said, adding that he’s taken note of some problem areas, including the Seven Corners district just east of downtown.

Feeling unsafe

Like many experienced cyclists, Dyrdahl is confident enough on his bike to simply ride around illegally parked vehicles. But he knows not everyone is, and as Minneapolis shifts its practices and policies to encourage more people to bike, blocked lanes could be an impediment.

“When someone is parked in a bike lane, it’s high stress,” he said. “It doesn’t feel good.”

Asked whether blocked bicycle lanes are a safety issue, Dyrdahl replied: “It is a safety issue if people feel it is”

A car parked inside the protected bicycle lane on East 28th Street. Photo by Dylan Thomas
A car parked inside the protected bicycle lane on East 28th Street. Photo by Dylan Thomas

In August, a truck driver in New York City was charged with driving while intoxicated and other crimes when he struck and killed an Australian tourist on a bicycle. According to news reports, the cyclist was hit after she swerved to avoid a van in an on-street bicycle lane.

Most bicycle-versus-car crashes in Minneapolis happen at intersections, and being struck from behind is a serious but relatively infrequent type of crash for cyclists, said Nick Mason, deputy director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota and a member of Minneapolis’ Bicycle Advisory Committee. But even the perception that blocked lanes are unsafe can impact a person’s willingness to bike, he added.

“This is also one of the reasons why we want to build a network that works for all riders,” Mason said.

Raising awareness

Since March, the Twitter account @tcblockedlanes has posted photographs of cars in bicycle lanes and crosswalks mostly in and around downtown, sometimes several times a day. The account’s co-creator, Alyssa Kohn, said she envisioned @tcblockedlanes as a “community account,” a way to crowdsource data about lane blocking and possibly identify problem areas. She encourages other users to tweet pictures of blocked lanes and tag their posts “#tcblockedlanes.”

There are similar Twitter accounts posting blocked-bike lane photos in cities from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to San Francisco, and even some with a narrower focus on frequent offenders, like @FedExInBikeLane

“It’s very average for me to open 20 things a day” from other Twitter users, Kohn said.

She also wants cyclists to report blocked lanes by calling 311 — as people have done 1,137 times since 2015, according city records  — and she asks them to post the outcome of their calls online.

Before she started @tcblockedlanes, Kohn said she would often hear friends complain that “nothing happens” when they call 311 to report illegally parked vehicles. She didn’t believe them until she started tracking the results of her own 311 calls, including multiple reports on a truck that repeatedly blocked her sister’s bike route to school at the University of Minnesota.

It finally moved, she said, only after she used @tcblockedlanes in March to tweet at Mayor Jacob Frey and Ward 2 Council Member Cam Gordon.

“I don’t trust everything that I put through 311 anymore,” she said. “I’ve seen with my own eyes that nothing has happened when they say it has.”

Mason confirmed that he, too, had “definitely seen more than one example” of 311 reporting a problem was resolved when it wasn’t.

Kohn said any part she can play in making Twin Cities streets safer is also her way of dealing with loss. A friend was struck and killed in a crosswalk while jogging on a Mississippi River parkway last year.

“It’s kind of therapeutic to me to hope to make it visible and make change,” she said.